Unchain the 
Power of Labor

charleston five
Charleston Five longshoremen arrested for defending picket lines against cop attack (January 2000)
click on photo for article

South Carolina clay miners appeal for solidarity in fight for their union (October 2001)
click on photo for article 


PMA Bosses’ Lockout:
Declaration of War on Dock Workers  and All Labor (October 2002)
click on photo for article



September 2004   

Wal-Mart, Jonquière, Québec
“Our prices are lower” – the wages too. Wal-Mart in Jonquière, Quebec.

It’ll Take Hard Class Struggle to
Beat the Labor-Hating Giant

The following article is expanded from an Internationalist Group leaflet distributed at the September 1 Labor Day demonstration in New York.

In the 1990s, as higher-paid industrial jobs disappeared, the only “alternative” for many laid-off workers in hard-hit “Rust Belt” communities, and for millions of young people joining the workforce, was minimum-wage work flipping hamburgers at the local McDonalds: “McJobs,” we called them. Today, “Walmartization” has come to symbolize the assault on workers’ pay and conditions internationally. Wal-Mart, the Bentonville, Arkansas-based retail chain, is now the largest employer in the United States, with 1.3 million workers who average $9.50 an hour. Out of their toil, the mega-company racks up $270 billion in yearly sales and $60 billion in annual profits. Not a single one of its 3,500 stores in the U.S., 633 stores in Mexico and 225 stores in Canada is unionized. Until now.

On August 2, the Quebec Labor Relations Board ruled that a majority of the hourly employees of the Wal-Mart store in Jonquière (part of the city of Saguenay), had signed up with the union, and on that basis it recognized Local 503 of the TUAC (Canadian United Food and Commercial Workers) as their representative. TUAC is part of the Quebec Labour Federation (FTQ) and affiliated with the American UFCW. The fact that workers in this northern region had won a union, making it the only unionized Wal-Mart store in all of North America, should put Jonquière on the map of the labor movement. It was big news around the world. The London Guardian (4 August) ran a story, “Wal-Mart’s Quebec staff win union rights.” It made the news in Mexico (La Jornada, 4 August), where Wal-Mart is also the largest employer. But U.S. papers blacked it out. 

Wal-Mart is synonymous with the destruction of unionized jobs with wage levels and benefits won through years of hard struggle, replaced by $8 an hour entry-level pay, with minimal or no health insurance and pension. A viciously anti-labor management which regiments employees with daily meetings and chants, tries to brainwash them with company ideology (the thoughts of Sam Walton), discriminates against women, forces its “associates” to work through their meal breaks, locks cleaning crews (many of them undocumented immigrants without rights, hired through subcontractors) in at night, and in the blink of an eye fires anyone who looks cross-eyed at a manager: that’s Wal-Mart. The mere rumor that Wal-Mart might open a store locally has led competitors to slash wages and benefits wholesale.

The threat of Wal-Mart setting up stores in southern California set off the bitter UFCW supermarket strike that lasted from October 2003 to February 2004 and ended in a defeat for the union, with wages for new hires cut by up to $2.80 an hour, worker “co-payments” for health insurance introduced, employer medical payments capped, and company pension fund payments cut (see “California Grocery Strike Sold Out,” The Internationalist No. 18, May-June 2004). In June, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) headed by Andrew Stern announced a $1 million organizing drive at Wal-Mart. The same week, a federal judge ruled that workers could sue the company in a class-action suit for sex discrimination. But looking to the bosses’ courts and throwing in some dollars will not organize Wal-Mart. It will take hard class struggle.

The Internationalist traveled to northern Quebec in mid-August to speak with the Wal-Mart workers. We arrived as they were about to begin a celebration of their victory. Union members and Local 503 officials were in high spirits. Scoring against the union-busting behemoth is no small thing. The arrogant Wal-Mart bosses are used to steamrollering over anything that gets in their way. But the around 170 workers at Jonquière, 80 percent of them women, wouldn’t lie down to be rolled over – they stood up to fight for their rights. It’s what one might expect in this solid union town. Yet Wal-Mart management was taken by surprise. They figured they had the union beat when TUAD narrowly lost a representation election in April. But the workers came right back at them, and three months later they had signed up enough so that the union had a solid majority even if the company tried to include management employees, “plus a few customers on Monday morning,” said UFCW International rep Herman Dallaire.

Wal-Mart Jonquière “Our team makes all the difference” – Wal-Mart caught by surprise by union victory at Jonquière, Quebec. (Photo: Pascal Rathé/Le Devoir)

Union militants told us that the key issues were wages and “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” – which is spelled the same in French or English, and Wal-Mart bosses don’t get it or give it. Starting pay is $8 Canadian an hour (which works out to under US$6), little more than the legal minimum wage in Quebec, compared to $13 at the unionized Costco in nearby Chicoutimi. Theoretically this could rise to $9.50 after several years, but the store hasn’t been open that long. Of course, with the rampant favoritism, those employees who go along and get along with management may be named “department managers,” who are just glorified foremen paid a few dollars more. No cases of overt sexual harassment were cited, but what really made the women furious was how Wal-Mart managers tried to humiliate individual workers in the morning meetings, “saying that they are lazy…that they ask for days off.” It was after one such session that they called up the union.

“If a manager notices an employee not applauding or signing the [company] song in the morning several times, it’s noted and that means a definite loss of a $10 raise. We also want to put a stop to the practice of new women workers advancing over the more experienced workers,” a union supporter told the Saguenay Progrès-Dimanche (28 March). Another acutely felt complaint is the absence of planning the workweek in advance. (28 hours a week is considered full-time, and many women work as few as 12 hours a week.) They are essentially “on call,” like temporary workers, and if they turn down work, that will be noted in the yearly evaluation. This is particularly difficult for women who have to juggle work and family. “For example, what if you have a child who is sick and you miss work?”

One woman said she had always worked under union conditions, and wasn’t about to take this kind of guff. They already tried in 2002 to organize a union, affiliated with the CSN (National Union Federation), which ended in a defeat. But she and another woman weren’t deterred. When Wal-Mart tried its ploy of locking the cleaning crew in at night, workers denounced this illegal abuse and forced the company to abandon it. By December 2003, enough Wal-Mart employees had signed cards for TUAD to force a new election. Local 503 president Marie-Josée Lemieux said that key in beating back company harassment was the existence of a workers’ committee inside the store. What was decisive, Dallaire told Recto Verso (January-February 2004), was that “we have a couple of courageous and determined women on the scene.”

Travailleurs bloquent la route 175, 11.12.2003 800 workers from Saguenay block Route 175 north from Quebec in protest over Charest government union-busting laws, 11 December 2003. (Photo: Mishell Potvin)

Another vital factor was the tradition of union struggle in Quebec generally and particularly in the Saguenay-Lac-St.-Jean region, an industrial area of huge lumber, paper, hydro-electric and aluminum mills. Last December, when the Liberal Party government of Jean Charest was getting ready to push anti-union laws through parliament, thousands of unionists converged on the National Assembly in Quebec City in the midst of a snowstorm, surrounding it, pelting the building with snowballs, eggs and yellow paint. Highway 175 north to Chicoutimi was cut off by a demonstration of 800 and truckers who dumped huge loads of sand on the pavement, effectively sealing off the region. This only ended when the Surêté de Québec police intervened at midnight to arrest 15 people, including the FTQ representative, Jean-Marc Crevier. Two days later, several thousand workers in Saguenay marched to protest the indefinite layoff of 640 workers by the Abitibi-Consolidated paper mill at La Baie. On May 1, the FTQ, CSN and other union federations called a huge demonstration in Montréal which brought out between 75,000 and 100,000 demonstrators – the largest May Day march in Quebec’s history.

In January, the management of Alcan announced at the gathering of the international capitalist elite in Davos, Switzerland that it was planning to close the Söderburg smelter of the aluminum multinational’s Arvida plant in Jonquière. Instead of just accepting this body blow, the 550 workers of the smelter and their union, the SNEAA (affiliated with the Canadian Auto Workers), occupied the plant, continuing to produce for 19 days until the Quebec Labor Relations Board ruled their action illegal. Pointing out that the company wanted to use the power from the foundry to supply other aluminum plants in the region, the workers demanded the nationalization of Alcan’s hydroelectric installations in Saguenay/Lac-St.-Jean (L’aut’courriel, 11 February). The workers’ occupation of the plant sent shock waves around Canada and drew broad support in the region, with a January 31 protest demo of more than 5,000 supporters. But the action of the labor board here should shatter any illusions that workers could somehow get justice from the capitalist courts and government.

Manif solidarité, Jonquière, 31.01.2004 More than 5,000 demonstrated in Saguenay, 31 January 2004, in solidarity with Alcan aluminum workers who occupied plant in faces of Alcan bosses’ threat to close foundry.
(Photo: Mishell Potvin)

Instead of limiting the occupation to a single foundry scheduled to be closed, the unions should have shut down production at all Alcan plants. This is still a burning question, as more than 800 workers at the ABI aluminum plant at Bécancour in the city of Trois-Rivières have been on strike since July 7. ABI management is threatening to bring in scabs, despite a Quebec law that supposedly prevents the use of “replacement workers.” Simultaneously, some 400 iron ore workers in Sept-Îles on the north coast of the St. Lawrence River are striking since the beginning of August. And now, Alcan is threatening to shut its Vaudreuil plant at Jonquière, threatening the jobs of 1,200 workers. If Wal-Mart management tries to play hardball to defeat the unionization attempt at Jonquière (for example, by threatening to close the store, as McDonald’s did in Montréal), the key to labor victory will be mobilizing unions throughout the region which have real industrial power.

Ultimately, the battle to unionize Wal-Mart, from a single store in the forests of northern Quebec to the entire multinational chain, will pose a sharp class battle. And as Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels noted over a century and a half ago, every serious class struggle is a political struggle. What’s needed is a workers leadership that can stand up to the courts, the cops, and the capitalist parties and government they serve. UFCW leaders look to Quebec because local labor laws are more favorable than in the U.S. or elsewhere in Canada, permitting a simple “card check” rather than a phony election to decide union representation, in which bosses freely intimidate workers with threats and bribes. But the fight to win a union will not be won by playing by the bosses’ rules.

Manif ouvrière à Jonquière, 31.01.2004 Its necessary to mobilize workers’ power to defeat the union-busters. Saguenay, 31 January 2004.
Photo: Mishell Potvin

Quebec’s rate of union representation far exceeds anywhere else in North America (42 percent of all workers, compared to 13 percent in the U.S.). It didn’t get that way by bowing down to or basing the struggle on what is or is not permitted by the bosses’ legal arsenal. Today, Quebec unions face a frontal attack by Charest with his plan for “reengineering Quebec.” Writing in Quebec’s Le Soleil (3 December 2003), Normand Provencher asked if Charest intended “A Wal-Mart Government?”:

“And if reengineering the state in these times of free trade and globalization simply comes down to the Wal-Mart approach: create lots of non-union jobs, with the lowest possible wages and social benefits. Is that what’s in store for Quebec workers?”

The FTQ, CSN and other unions have passed resolutions calling for a “general strike” against the Liberal Charest government and its anti-union laws … when the leaderships judge the timing to be right. But a real general strike is not a big parade but a showdown with the bourgeoisie, a knock-down, drag-out battle to decide “who is master in the house,” on the order of the tumultuous 1972 Quebec general strike in which Sept-Îles was taken over by the workers. But the 1972 strike ran into the ground precisely for the lack of a revolutionary leadership.

Bosses all over Quebec are alarmed by the accreditation of the Wal-Mart union. The business weekly Les Affaires (14 August) headlines, “Quebec, Paradise for the Unions.” This organ of the employers complains that not only is the unionization rate higher than anywhere on the continent, while it has been falling elsewhere, in Quebec it has been rising in recent years. At the same time, the article notes that Metro supermarkets (organized by TUAC/UFCW) are “demanding a wage cut in order to remain competitive faced with the imminent arrival of Sam’s Club in Quebec….” In fact, as history professor Jacques Rouillard of the University of Montréal points out, “The unions are on the defensive” (quoted in a feature article, “Quebec Unionism in Quicksand,” in Montréal’s Le Devoir (7-8 August). Rouillard, author of Le syndicalisme québécoise: deux siècles d’histoire (Boréal, 2004) is pessimistic: “We’re always expecting a turnaround with the union movement taking the officensive, but it hasn’t happened. Governments always put the economy ahead of social questions.” Yet these are capitalist governments who will always stand on the side of the bosses against the workers!

Devant l'Assemblée nationale à Québec, le 15.12.2003 Unionists surrounded Quebecs National Assembly in middle of snowstorm on 15 December 2003 to protest Charest governments union-busting laws. (Photo: FTQ)

To defeat a giant like Wal-Mart, working people must look to their own class power. Victory will not be won by relying on the bourgeois courts, labor departments and politicians, nor by appealing to localism, nationalism and protectionism, but by mobilizing the strength of working people around the globe. The battle over unionization in Quebec is part of the overall class struggle internationally, which in the past couple of years has seen a demonstration of 250,000 in Montréal (and 3,000 in Chicoutimi) against the Iraq War … as well as a practice occupation of Sherbrooke by the Canadian Army (which put the whole of Quebec under martial law in 1970). The imperialist war on Iraq (and the occupation of Haiti by Canadian imperialist troops) is intimately linked to the bosses’ war on the workers “at home.”

For years, Quebec has been rent by battles over its status in the Canadian state. Quebec labor is tied to the Parti Québécois (PQ), a nationalist capitalist party which represents certain layers of the local ruling class, who would like to cut a better deal with U.S. imperialism by loosening their ties to the rest of Canada, in the formula “sovereignty-association.” The Liberals have solid support from other Quebec capitalists who would like to join in the exploitation of the working class across Canada. The Internationalist Group and League for the Fourth International call for independence of Quebec, at the same time as we fight on the program of proletarian internationalism against the bourgeois nationalists as well as the petty-bourgeois nationalists such as the Union des Forces Progressistes (UFP), SPQLibre and Option Citoyenne who orbit around the PQ.

Periodically, when Wal-Mart stores or McDonald’s restaurants have opened, there have been calls for consumer boycotts, often with a protectionist/nationalist flavor, such as the campaign to “boycott American products” publicized by “anti-globalization” liberals of Alternatives.  Such campaigns target Wal-Mart employees along with the bosses, while dividing workers along national lines. But Quebec bosses are no better than their U.S. or English Canadian counterparts. The Quebecor World conglomerate, headed by Pierre Karl Péladeau, is the largest printer of periodicals and catalogues in the world, including Time magazine and the Victoria’s Secret catalogue. Péladeau, a former Maoist (one-time member of En Lutte!) not only broke the strike at Vidéotron (which he bought with money from the PQ government) but is charged with racist union busting by black women workers in Quebecor World printing plants in Memphis, Tennessee and Mississippi.

The struggle at Wal-Mart and Arvida in Jonquière, as well as the struggles of tens of thousands of militant Québécois workers, requires ousting pro-capitalist leaders who tie the unions to the bosses and their parties. In the United States as well, the battle against “Walmartization” will be fought out politically. Republican vice-president Cheney praises Wal-Mart as a showpiece of the Bush administration’s economic policies, while Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry piously criticizes the company’s failure to provide benefits. Yet the Democrats are no answer: it shouldn’t be forgotten that Hillary Rodham Clinton was a lawyer for and for six years a board member of Wal-Mart.

From Quebec to the U.S., the struggle against imperialist war “abroad” and capitalist war on the working people, minorities, immigrants and poor “at home” requires the forging of a class-struggle workers party that fights for a workers government and international socialist revolution. n

To contact the League for the Fourth International or its sections, send an e-mail to: internationalistgroup@msn.com